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The United Nations report World Urbanization Prospects 2018 describes a megacity as a city of 10 million or more inhabitants.[1] By that definition, the number of megacities will increase from 10 in 1990 to an estimated 43 in 2030 globally, hosting nearly 9 percent of the world’s population.[2] Spanning five continents, megacities present numerous economic, demographic, and environmental challenges and opportunities that may differ in scope, but are shared in essence across the board. As such, they present a timely topic for international dialogue and cross-cultural collaboration.

Six of the current megacities by the UN definition are in Muslim-majority countries, and two are in the United States. Representing different countries and urban cultures, as well as distinct levels of economic and human development, these megacities nonetheless have several commonalities. All are potential economic powerhouses and can offer wealth, diversity, and innovation to their inhabitants, and investment and expansion opportunities to businesses. They all encounter challenges that accompany fast-paced growth such as overcrowding, resource scarcity and management, and social inequality. In an effort to discuss the opportunities and challenges within megacities, the Hollings Center for International Dialogue conducted a dialogue conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, in July 2019. The dialogue featured researchers, urban planners, municipal officials, journalists, architects, and environmentalists representing the megacities of Baghdad, Cairo, Dhaka, Istanbul, Jakarta, Lahore, Los Angeles, and New York. Over the course of several days, the dialogue participants determined several conclusions and points requiring further analysis:

  • The definition of a megacity is far more amorphous than simple criteria of population, density, or geographic size. Megacities arose as major cultural, economic, and infrastructural phenomena with far-reaching influence and impact on their countries and the world. Better assessment of the challenges and opportunities created by megacities requires greater theoretical analysis and a broadened, inclusive definition.
  • Differences exist between megacities of the “Global North” and the “Global South,” such as in the type and amount of resources available to address challenges, which in turn alter applied solutions. Despite this, cities on both spectra can learn from each other when applying those solutions. Applicable capacity and cultural sensitivities should play a role in megacity cooperation. Yet, it remains important not to oversimplify megacity challenges by using these two classifications. The scope, priority, and remedy of each challenge varies city to city.
  • Maintaining a healthy, vibrant megacity depends on the healthy flow of people, ideas, resources. Regular “back-and-forth” can create transparency and opportunity from the city center to the city’s periphery. However, impediments to that flow can create infrastructural decay, cascading corruption, social stress, and economic inequalities.
  • A thriving megacity requires significant amounts of water, energy, and food. Successfully addressing the challenges posed by the high demand for these nexus resources will foster not only improved social equality, but also create more efficient systems to address environmental challenges.
  • Megacities require good governance of land use, health, housing, and transportation. Better transparency between governments and citizens is needed and new technological applications could help improve that communication.
  • Balancing urban development while protecting heritage proved a sensitive subject during the dialogue, one on which city leaders and residents avoid having the necessary civic conversations. Heritage can be used to project a city’s image and identity. However, it is important to balance community needs and interests with cultural, historical, natural preservation.

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[1]World Urbanization Prospects—2018, Infographic (May 16, 2018), https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/graphic/world-urbanization-prospects-2018-more-megacities-in-the-future.

[2]The World’s Cities in 2018, United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/events/citiesday/assets/pdf/the_worlds_cities_in_2018_data_booklet.pdf, p. 3.